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Treat heat like a butterfly, take the sting out of energy use

Just as air-conditioning and heating systems help maintain comfortable temperatures in buildings despite temperature swings outside, some living organisms can change their form to keep their body temperatures within a certain range. Someday, our buildings may act more like these living beings, automatically changing their own structure in response to the conditions outside—using less energy for heating or cooling in the process.

Julian (Jialiang) Wang hopes to bring that future a little closer, using a $2,000 BSA Research in Architecture grant.

As a PhD student in architecture at Texas A&M University and an adjunct research fellow at Tsinghua University’s Center for Building Environment Testing in Beijing, Wang already has spent a year investigating how using analogies drawn from a small part of the natural world could create a better building exterior.

“Butterfly wings are interesting structures in that they can change forms and motions in response to outside temperatures. I am using this as inspiration for building-envelope design,” Wang explains.

The honeycombed microstructures on the surface of a butterfly’s wings serve as effective collectors or blockers of heat, noted Wang in his research proposal. Sunlight enters the concave combs and, although light can be partially absorbed or reflected, nearly all the heat is trapped within the honeycomb instead of being lost through the outside of the wings. Conversely, when outdoor temperatures climb, the butterfly wings fold in a way that minimizes their surface area to keep the insect’s body cool.

Wang has used this concept to design environmentally sensitive, kinetic building panels. The panels consist of hexagons that automatically change in shape from flat to concave to convex—depending on solar radiation and the air’s temperature—which, in turn, either retain or repel heat.

For the next year, Wang will be using the parametric design method in building information modeling technology not only to digitally render his designs but also to explore possible shapes and compositions of the panels, to perform statistical analysis of how these variations affect energy use and to optimize a design for a particular climate. He plans to submit a final technical report to a publication geared toward the sustainable-design or computer-aided-design community.

The final phase of the project—building a prototype—will likely send him abroad.

“The natural model I chose lives in areas with hot summer and cold winter weather conditions,” says Wang. “Houston—where I primarily live, practice and do research—is not a good choice for the prototype because the climate is mostly hot with high humidity. It might make sense to build in Beijing, as Tsinghua University also has been involved in some of the project modeling. The long-term goal of this research is to explore more natural models—which possibly contribute to building energy efficiency—and, in turn, to integrate biomimicry, sustainable design and kinetic aesthetics.”


Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, Wired.com and the Boston Globe. Her website is www.genevieverajewski.com.

Top image by Julian Wang.